There's an art to staying healthy, and part of that is working out your mind. A key part of a well-rounded, healthy life is your mental well-being. While some turn to various forms of pure meditation, others find that pursuing a contemplative art form helps them focus on the "now" and quiet other, stress-producing aspects of their lives.
Pursuing contemplative arts isn't just for artists - they offer something for everyone, from novice to expert.
"Movement offers a way to embody feelings, including joy, grief, anger and sorrow," says Dianne Brakarsh, who facilitates "Moving From Within" and "Dancing With the Divine" classes in Madison. Both encourage integration of the body, mind, emotions and spirit.
Dance allows people to process emotions through movement, and moving the body helps the mind "move through" emotions, Brakarsh believes. In her classes, participants rediscover "their innate joy of movement," and explore the playfulness and freedom in their bodies they knew as children. This calms the mental chatter. A moving body gives the mind plenty of space to feel, process and understand emotions.
Brakarsh has studied ballet, jazz, African dance, contact improvisation, trance dance and continuum movement (which combines breath, sound and movement). She mixes these with yoga, t'ai chi, aikido, NIA, and her experiences as a former movement therapist. She offers several drop-in classes each week.
Some choreography is provided, but Brakarsh strongly encourages improvisation. Each person dances in her own way, responding to the music, the emotions and the body. Participants use the dance how they see fit - it can be a physical workout, a mental clearing, emotional release or a way to play. "Dance can be as light or deep an experiences as one wants," says Brakarsh. It doesn't matter how the dance looks. What matters is how the dance feels.
"For me, these classes are a profound practice of meditation-in-action, as we learn to sink below the mind's everyday activity into the terrain of our bodies," says Alison Einbender, a clinical psychologist. After her first class seven years ago, she felt as if she had come home to her body, realizing that in our culture, the norm is to move through daily life without much awareness of the body. She now attends three classes a week and finds each class freeing, forgetting about her work day and her daily "to-do" list. While thoughts may come and go, her focus is on listening to how her body wants to move, a practice she carries through to her daily life.
"Pure movement is natural from the time we are born," Brakarsh reminds her students. "Babies move without thinking; they just move."
Contemplative writing is another way for people to explore their minds to create a greater sense of well-being. Writing practice often begins with meditation followed by a focused writing prompt. Students then write whatever comes into their minds, keeping the pen moving for a set period of time. This often leads to profound insights about the self.
This kind of writing is more than journaling. It's a dedicated practice inspired by Zen Buddhism and the writings of Natalie Goldberg.
Stephanie Durnford studies with Miriam Hall, a contemplative arts instructor in Madison. During class, "I step outside my life and take time for myself," says Durnford. Afterwards, "I'm more grounded, more present." As an assistant manager in a local coffee shop, she often finds herself remembering to just be present, one breath at a time, even in stressful situations.
"Everyone is seeking," says Hall. Some of her students are professional writers looking to be with other writers or to improve their own writing. Others don't consider themselves writers at all. Contemplative writing encourages people to be present in the moment, and to get past seeing emotional or creative blocks as solid objects in the way. While writing, students allow the mind to drift, stream-of-consciousness-style, and later they'll see and make connections they hadn't made before.
Hall begins each session with a brief meditation, reminding her writers to connect with their breath and body. She then offers a short reading and a writing prompt to help focus the mind. Sometime the prompt is contemplative in nature, such as, "What does it mean to be present?" Other times, prompts are more literal, like "What did your childhood kitchen look like?"
It's common for anger, anxiety or self-hatred to appear first on paper, says Hall. Her writers come to understand they do have these feelings, that this is okay, and that such feelings are part of the human experience. These emotions are replaced by calmness and understanding as the writer begins to make connections between thoughts and feelings." The details count, says Hall.
Class participants are asked to share their writings, if they feel comfortable doing so. Sharing is not necessary for a successful session - Hall believes that simply showing up to a session reflects intention and courage and is just as involving.
Miksang is a contemplative way of approaching photography that encourages its practitioners to see things as they are, without preconceived notions, expectations or a desire to change them or make them "better."
Miksang is Tibetan for "good eye" or clear eye. This Dharma art is based on the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa, founder of the Shambala vision of Buddhism. Many practitioners of Miksang use it as a complement to a regular meditation practice. Those who find sitting meditation especially challenging often find Miksang to be a creative yet effective outlet for their meditation practices. Others come to Miksang without any experience in either Buddhism or photography.
"Miksang is about learning to practice observation and increasing our own sensitivity to being in the moment," says Jonathan Garber, a student of Miksang. He started practicing the discipline in December and already sees profound changes in his life.
Miriam Hall leads Miksang workshops in the Madison and surrounding areas. (Her student Ann Hall, no relation, will soon begin leading workshops as well.) Often, her students practice meditation or yoga but still feel something is missing. They're looking for something more active or creative, and Miksang fills that void. "People feel a need to connect with the world and with others," Hall says. In the process, they learn compassion and begin to see life in a different way.
Some students arrive knowing little about Buddhism and even less about their cameras; others are experienced photographers looking for something different.
While Miksang is rooted in Buddhism, Hall stays away from lingo. The beginning level is about observing and not altering the world to capture a "perfect" photo. Other basics include color, shape, form, texture and light and looking for these elements in everyday life. A session can be as simple as observing and capturing images of objects in your kitchen.
Ultimately, a goal for Miksang students is to realize the good in every aspect of life, which in turn will increase compassion for everything around them.
While the contemplative arts enhance mental well-being, they're not designed be the only support for those challenged with greater mental health issues. As facilitators, both Brakarsh and Hall stress to students they are not therapists and encourage those who need more help to receive it.
"We talk in the guise of writing and focus on the writing itself," says Miriam Hall. If she recognizes someone needs more help, then she reminds that person what she can offer may not be what the person needs. However, the mindful practice of art can complement traditional therapies and offer another form of well-being in today's hectic world.
608-233-4391; email@example.com. All classes are drop-in; $12.
Moving From Within
Mondays, 5:30-6:45 pm
James Reeb Unitarian Building,
2146 E. Johnson St.
Saturdays, 9-10:15 am
1957 Winnegabo St.
Dancing With the Divine
Fridays, 9:30-10:45 am
T'ai Chi Center,
301 S. Bedford St., Suite 219
New sessions begin in March.
9-week sessions, $100 (financial aid available)
Level-one introductory workshops
on weekends, 9 am-5 pm each day, March 15-16, April 26-27 and June 28-29
For additional information see www.miksang.org.